Bradford City 1
Saturday 15 March, 2014
By Katie Whyatt
My mum has a well-worn saying that the best thing about going away is coming home at the end, and I agree – there’s nothing quite like the warm familiarity of your bedroom.
It must have been an odd ‘homecoming’, though, for Peter Taylor, given he was returning to a stadium in which he’d enjoyed very little success and had practically been hounded out off, when it looked like relegation from the Football League was a genuine possibility. Reading interviews with the former City gaffer prior to kick-off brought all the memories flooding back: the false dawns, the broken promises, the total dependency on loan players to plug the gaps, the reliance on O’Brien, Flynn and Syers to paper over the cracks.
Those were dark times. Times I’m not too keen to return to. The only thing I can really say is thank goodness we’ve got Phil Parkinson.
You’d often put the two at odds with each other: the juxtaposition of Taylor with his gawky, ugly, it’s-not-fancy-but-trust-me-on-this pragmatism, and Parkinson with his reliance on creative flair players in the form of two out-and-out wingers, presents a dichotomy seemingly destined to swing only in one team’s favour from the outset. Some find it easy to take umbrage with Parkinson’s alleged lack of a plan D or plan E, but what about Taylor’s lack of an unregimented plan A? What about the implacable lack of creativity and structure within his teams? What about the fragmented movements and misguided directness, exhibited so clearly in blue and white today?
While the second half devastatingly saw City slip down to the visitors’ level and relent the steely grip they’d exerted over proceedings in the first half, the gulf between the two teams was there for all too see. It wasn’t so much a new sighting as a flashback to the days of old: Gillingham used all the cards pervasive during Taylor’s tenure.
Which is undoubtedly why Parkinson’s initial game plan was so ruthlessly effective. Gillingham sat deep and allowed City time on the ball, and the use of the hugely influential Kyle Bennett and Adam Reach helped to exacerbate jitteriness within the visitors’ back four. To a man, the Bantams were faultless: Adam Drury excelled on the left and provided the seamless service to Reach that Carl McHugh can understandably struggle with, and Matty Dolan and Nathan Doyle once again dominated the centre of the park with dogged displays.
Everything was clinical and organised, Bradford’s hugely impressive tap-and-touch movements baffling a Gillingham side that seemed incapable of keeping it on the deck. Doyle, significantly, looks to have recaptured the form of yesteryear and his cutting vision and tidy distribution complimented Dolan’s runs and tenacity perfectly, and an unstoppable City midfield ran the show. Poor Craig Fagan looked as though he couldn’t wait to get to the break.
It was a Drury and Reach movement that opened the scoring. Following a period of hugely engaging build-up play from the Bantams’ left side, James Hanson typically won Rory McArdle’s long ball through from the back, and Reach laid off for Drury. The full back’s teasing cross fell perfectly into the path of the goal-shy Aaron Mclean, who keenly fired home from close range to open his Valley Parade account.
The goal was nothing less than the City performance had merited, and the lead could have been extended just minutes later. Reach sliced Fagan and Adam Barrett right out of the equation, but skewed his shot a metre wide. Mclean also converted Reach’s ball through a minute later, but the offside flag had been up long before the winger had collected the ball. Gillingham tried, but their frenetic stuttering was no competition for a rigidly composed City unit, and Bennett mirrored his left-sided counterpart with similar effectiveness and fluidity.
It was easily the best Bantams performance in months – I’d even plump for the whole season – and, though Gills’ reluctance to engage probably afforded City more space and thinking time than a clash against the likes of Wolves or Brentford would gift, take nothing away from the hosts, who enjoyed a hugely disciplined 45 minutes in which they had staunchly refused to surrender their principles. Add a tongue-in-cheek wave from Peter Taylor to the mix, and what you’re left with is a satisfying and positive first-half showing.
So where did it all go wrong?
Until the second half, City’s play had been nothing but laudable. I’m genuinely struggling to remember the last time I’d seen them so rampant and in control, looking, all over, to so plainly be head and shoulders above their opponents – the play off final is the game that immediately springs to mind. The home side’s dominance had seemingly eviscerated all hope of a Gillingham equaliser.
So, where did it all go wrong?
The introduction of the notorious Adebayo Akinfenwa, finally released from Andrew Davies’ back pocket after a lengthy and tortuous stint inside, will be an obvious talking point, and the striker’s pinpoint passing played through Cody McDonald for the visitors’ leveller. A moment of hesitation and indecision on the part of Jon McLaughlin cost City dearly, and Taylor’s side found themselves celebrating a goal they’d had absolutely no business in earning.
It was a mistake the hosts couldn’t bounce back from. City imploded and were frantic, scared. McArdle, who probably enjoyed his best game of the campaign, looked the most comfortable of the back four and fiercely repressed the hulking Akinfenwa, but it was generally staggered from the Bantams, with Bradford struggling to get the bodies in the final third to capitalise on Bennett’s runs forward. Only Gary Jones, introduced with 17 minutes remaining for the captivating Dolan, formed any real tonic, and City’s broken play reflected their opponents.
Gillingham looked to have finally found their feet and there was more conviction about their play, with Akinfenwa testing McLaughlin from 30 yards. Ultimately, the hosts paid the price for not finding that crucial second – proceedings finished 1-1.
It was a display representative of City’s entire season: calmness and resolve reaping lavish rewards initially, but the game plan eventually disintegrating and leaving the home side with more to do than they should have. Factor out that second half and you’ve got the performance of the day; factor out the first half and you’ve got something you’d want to forget.
As this season races towards its conclusion and the clamour to reach 50 points naturally grows louder, the best thing we can do now is continue to remain behind the team and maintain the positive feeling today sparked – the opening quarter seems to have silenced the ‘Parky Out’ brigade, and relegation fears, though mathematically holding weight, have been temporarily assuaged.
We’ve come a, um, way since the unbridled hedonism of the cup run, and not all of it’s been something you’d be hankering to write home about, but we’ve moved. There’s been stagnancy at times, but we’ve moved up the ladder and we’ve moved convincingly in most games. For a newly promoted club, there’s nothing alarmingly anomalous about any of this season. What it’s easy to forget following that unnaturally bright start is that the Bantams are still moving through a natural period of calibration and consolidation, and Parkinson is learning this division along with us.
The rudimentary Hanson-Mclean partnership is still in its infancy, which is what makes general performances – with the addition of the latter’s cool finish today – bode hearteningly well for the future. Equally, the left-side combination of Reach and Drury is still inchoate, yet it’s proving hugely effective and left the Gills defence with nowhere to hide.
Parkinson’s recruitment wasn’t perfect at the start of the campaign (De Vita and Taylor’s Bantams careers haven’t been helped by injuries, though, so I genuinely believe we still haven’t seen the best of these two), but he’s more than made up for that with five excellent acquisitions in the form of Reach, Bennett, Atkinson, Dolan and Drury, which, for me, means things are only looking up.
But if you need any further affirmation of the progress City have made under Parkinson, it was sat just a metre away in the dugout today.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, Bennett, Dolan (Jones 73), Doyle, Reach, Hanson, Mclean (Thompson 80)
Not used: Bentley, McHugh, Bates, Atkinson, Gray